New novel for young adults: enter another dimension in this life-affirming read for children aged 11 plus
New young adult novel The Secret Club and the Manafuls by Native Hawaiian author Dorimalia Waiau is a delightfully fresh, imaginative, and enriching story weaving together two parallel worlds of reality and magic, writes Gwyneth Rees, independent book reviewer.
Those seeking entertaining and inspirational YA fiction need look no further than The Secret Club and the Manafuls by Dorimalia Waiau.
Aimed at readers aged 11 and upwards, it is a life-affirming story which examines the everyday pressures of modern life through a magical story steeped in the rich, fascinating and largely untapped mythology of Hawaiian culture.
It follows three 11-year-old young people living in post-Covid Hawaii who are grappling with various pressures and worries including bullying, depression and anxiety, family neglect, and isolation.
Malie is a painfully shy “latchkey only” child who is raised singlehandedly by her mother, a busy nurse and Covid front-line responder, and who prefers the company of books to anything else.
Pierre is a keen athlete and blessed with handsome features, but he feels isolated and burdened by his emerging sexual identity, with him already knowing that he is attracted to people of his own gender.
Nicole, meanwhile, feels out of place at school because of her mixed heritage, with her absent military father being African American and her mother, who raises her, being Native Hawaiian. She suffers from confidence issues, thinking herself an ugly duckling when this is all in her head.
Unbeknown to the three, they are being observed by magical beings from a parallel dimension, the Manafuls.
Standing only around three feet high, these human-like figures are very similar to the ‘Menehune’ of Hawaiian myth – a mythological race of dwarf people said to live in the deep forests and hidden valleys of the islands.
Elder Puna, a Manaful leader who is more than 3,000 years old explains to his grandson, Ikaika, that these three pre-teens are special because they are “aligned with Mana”. In other words, they possess untapped powers which they unaware of because of their personal issues.
And so Elder Puna invites them to the Manaful world, sending out a telepathic message to them just as they are lining up for gym class.
The three kids have never really noticed each other before, but this message instantly unites them, albeit unexpectedly, and they are drawn to the back of the gym hall, where they find a portal resembling a shimmering waterfall that transports them across to the timeless Manaful kingdom.
They step across into a magical environment where all of nature has a pulsing life force and agency, from talking trees to self-moving limestone boulders.
Here they are greeted by the wise Elder Puna and Ikaika, who materialize in front of them, and enter into a telepathic conversation. Nicole is, at first, deeply suspicious of the Manafuls and their intentions but is soon won over by their kind and gentle manners.
Malie dubs the trio the ‘Secret Club’, as the portal is only open to them, and they soon become enchanted by the unspoiled delights of this parallel realm, where time stands still.
Observing the forest setting, Malie feels it very closely resembles that of her home:
She smiled, realizing how similar Manaful was to the backwoods of her homestead community, Tantalus Drive in Honolulu. The bushes and tree branches were thickly laden with fragrant vines. It appeared to be Maile vines. The Maile lei was thick, hunter green, and a lovely adornment worn like long decorative stoles. People wore them around their necks for Hawaiian celebrations back home, say a wedding or a graduation ceremony.
But this world, both deeply calming and excitingly new at the same time, is in danger. For, as the Secret Club learns, a hostile Manaful leader called Uli is attempting to conquer the land.
Uli is third in line in the Elder Counsel, but hungers for complete control, where status is connected not with material worth but magical power.
He will stop at nothing – not even murder – to gain more magic and has hatched a sinister plot involving a less-welcome Earth visitor: the Covid virus.
It is ultimately up to Uli’s grandson and only living relative, Maka, to defeat the rogue elder, the killer of Maka’s parents, and earn his right to be leader.
Uli, though, is aware of the Secret Club and identifies them as a threat to his wicked plans.
As the adventure develops, Malie, Pierre, and Nicole venture between the two worlds, learning more about themselves and their abilities, both human and magical, each time.
And they will need their firm friendship and every last drop of Mana if they, together with Elder Puna, Ikaika, and Maka, stand any chance of stopping Uli before its too late.
What strikes me most about this unique novel is how debut author, native Hawaiian Dorimalia Waiau, can weave contemporary issues with timeless mythology so seamlessly.
Take Maka, for instance. We read early on about how he is in the terrifying shadow of his grandfather, Uli, who ticks all the boxes of an abusive and neglectful parent.
Is it still love, if one was afraid for their life? Was it a victim’s codependency? Maka tried not to go all therapist-speak about it. He spent a lot of time with Elder Puna, talking it out. Fortunately for Maka, his grandfather was too selfish to care where Maka went. Uli neglected Maka’s schooling in Mana. He neglected Maka, period.
So, across the course of the novel, the main characters, both human and Manaful, are able to begin the process of self-healing through greater awareness and insight, and with a nurturing support network around them.
It’s all very clever how the author, a high school Language Arts teacher, manages to address these life challenges not only without in any way compromising the charming fantasy of Manaful World but, in fact, enhancing it.
And, with its wealth of fascinating Hawaiian culture, heritage and language, Manaful is a delightful setting that you’ll want to revisit time and again, just like the Secret Club.
It’s all handled respectfully by Dorimalia and, with an eight-book series planned, we will have plenty of opportunities over the coming years to step through the portal of the printed page.
At its heart, the story explores how we can all find the strength and courage to face the everyday problems that assault us, discovering, like the Club, forgiveness and acceptance in the process. In short, how to be Manaful.
The colourful storyline is packed with challenges which the children must overcome, and wisdom in dealing with them, from the particular to the shared, most notably the post-Covid setting, where the virus has, as in the real world, affected everyone.
Touchingly, many of these personal troubles are encapsulated in short, anthemic songs, which give access to a given character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
Malie, for instance, sings,
Safe havens are in my mind. I hate it on Earth when they stare at my behind. It’s those uncomfortable times, when I leave quickly. Sometimes I wish I didn't act so meekly.
Nicole, meanwhile, sings of peace, more suited to soothe her burning internal anger, calling out to “Lift me up, Forest, hear my harmony”.
In a move that will delight fans of the series, Dorimalia is encouraging readers to compose music for each of the songs on a live, collaborative soundtrack (ever-growing and shaping). She plans to do the same for each book of the series.
Those wishing to do so can visit hitrecord.org/users/DorimaliaWaiau/records, but if music isn’t your thing then the author is also welcoming of fan-fiction, fan-art, and fan-movies. In essence, she is creating a real-world equivalent of the Secret Club, open to and supportive of all.
Whether your engagement stretches that far, or ends with the closing of the final chapter, you’ll come away from The Secret Club and the Manafuls lifted up its fantastical world’s whistling winds beneath your wings, soaring high with the positivity packed within its page.
With many YA series more interested in despair and distress than their opposites, this is a most welcome change.
Seek it out, and say aloha to a fantastical Hawaiian adventure not to be missed.
The Secret Club and the Manafuls by Dorimalia Waiau is out now on Amazon, in paperback, hardcover, and eBook editions, priced £10, £20, and £6 respectively. An audiobook adaptation will be released later this year, priced £10. For more information, visit www.dorimaliawaiau.com or follow author Dorimalia Waiau on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok.